For this Child…
Comfort, comfort ye My people
Speak ye peace, thus saith our God;
Comfort those who sit in darkness,
Mourning ‘neath their sorrow’s load
~Johann Olearius, trans. Catherine Winkworth
Suggested Reading: 1 Samuel 1
Note: All of the dialogue is taken or adapted from the ESV translation of 1 Samuel 1, linked above.
She was the loved wife, she was the favored wife. She was the barren wife, she was not the only wife. Yet the daily stings she endured from Peninnah were nothing compared to the gaping emptiness inside of her, the mourning of the absence of something she had never possessed.
Her husband, his legacy secured by Peninnah’s children, urged her to be happy. He bought her presents, made sure she had her favorite foods. “Aren’t I worth ten sons?” he would ask.
Her heart whispered this to her even as her mouth conjured the ghost of a smile. She loved Elkanah, but the love of a husband was not the same as the love of a child. To feel him hold her was not the same as holding a baby, gathering his warm weight in her arms and knowing he was hers. The two loves were different things, and one could not replace the other.
Elkanah’s favoritism further provoked Peninnah, who, as the mother of his children, believed she should be the special one. Even as Peninnah intentionally wounded her with every word and look, Hannah couldn’t blame her. She wondered if her rival felt the absence of her husband’s love like she felt the absence of a child.
Every year Elkanah would bring his wives and children to Shiloh to sacrifice. A generous man, he always made sure each woman and child had a portion to sacrifice. Ever since he had married Peninnah to bear his children, he had given Hannah a double portion. He had stopped expecting the Lord to grant her a child — for Elkanah, the double portion was a symbol of love for his wife. But Hannah still believed. She had to still believe. If she stopped believing that the Lord would one day grant her prayer, that dark pit inside of her would swallow her up, consume her from the inside out.
In the past year, the pit had grown larger. She could feel her body growing older. Her time was running out. This is why she found herself on her knees in the dirt outside the tabernacle. She had sacrificed her double portion, and now she would sacrifice her pride. Elkanah’s favorite wife, on her knees in the dirt for everyone to see.
Eyes closed tightly, she repeated the same prayer over and over, her mouth forming the silent words. Lord, remember me. Lord, don’t forget me. Please give me a son.
The sun climbed higher in the sky. People jostled her as they passed, laughed at the crazy woman, but she didn’t notice. Lord, remember me. Lord, don’t forget me. Please give me a son. Please.
She swayed with hunger, and her head ached. She kept praying, tears making tracks in the dust on her cheeks. Lord, remember me. Lord, don’t forget me. Please give me a son, and I will give him back to you.
The priest had been watching her for the past hour. He sat by the doorpost studying the woman whose lips were moving furiously but making no sound. He watched her almost fall and begin to weep. He watched as the people going to and from the tabernacle pointed and jeered at her. For as much her sake as anyone else’s, he decided to send her away.
“You shouldn’t be here drunk,” he said, not unkindly. When she didn’t open her eyes, he knelt beside her and repeated himself in her ear.
Startled, Hannah fell forward and had to brace herself from falling on her face. Her eyes were not used to the bright mid-day light after being closed for so long, and she shielded them with her dirty hand. When they fell upon the ephod, she straightened.
“I’m not drunk!” Even to her own ears, her voice was too loud and jarring.
It was clear from the priest’s expression that he did not believe her. Her face was sticky with sweat and tears, and when she looked down she saw that her expensive linen tunic was ruined.
“My lord, please,” she said, more gently now. “I haven’t had anything to drink today. I am only praying.”
Only praying. Only pouring out her soul. Only exposing every fear and doubt without any expectation that her prayer would be answered as she hoped. The priests said that the Lord was all-knowing, all-powerful. So he must know what it meant to be a childless woman. Know the disappointment of her husband. Feel the scorn of other women, or what was worse, the pity of friends who balanced their own children on their hips. Without a child, all that was left was the pit, which started in her empty womb and spread relentlessly through the rest of her.
“I’m not a worthless woman,” she said, softly, and she wasn’t sure who she was talking to.
The priest could hear the anguish in her voice, and her eyes, when she finally lifted them from the ground, were direct and focused even though they were blurred with tears. In the moment their eyes met, he overwhelmed with a sense of certainty, and when he spoke, his voice echoed with a power that was not his own.
“Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.”
He trembled. There was a promise in the words, a promise for the future that reached far beyond him and this woman.
Hannah heard it too. She felt it, the power in the words filling her, filling the pit.
“Let your servant find favor in your eyes.” She was breathless as she rose, nearly bursting with this new energy that had overflowed the darkness. She knew it was undignified to run back to her tent, but it was hard to restrain herself, and so she walked with a strange hitch to her step as she tried to keep her feet on the ground.
That night when Elkanah came to her tent, she was so overwhelmed with joy she thought she would shatter and have to be put back together.
And maybe she had been.
I will give him back to you, she had promised.
She had feared this day since the first time she had felt him move in her womb. The Lord had given her a son. For two years she had kept him close, kissing his head and breathing in the milky smell as often as she could, while she still could. But now he was weaned, and she had to fulfill her promise.
Elkanah, she knew, didn’t think she had an obligation to give the boy up. She had spoken in desperation, he argued, as many people do and then go on to act more reasonably when the moment passes. But, then, he hadn’t been there. He hadn’t heard the priest speak with a voice that was not his own. He had not felt the power that had filled every void. And, as in most things, he ultimately deferred to her wishes.
“Do what seems best to you.”
When they went to Shiloh this time they brought a young bull, an ephah of flour, a skin of wine, and little Samuel.
As they approached the gates to the tabernacle, the same gates where she had knelt in the dirt almost three years ago, Hannah gripped the boy’s hand tightly. He didn’t like to be carried anymore, otherwise she would have been holding him, feeling his heart beat against hers one last time. In those last steps, she didn’t know if she could finish the journey. She was about to tug the boy’s hand and turn around when she saw the priest.
Upon meeting his eyes, Hannah felt an echo of the power that had surged through her, and the memory propelled her through the gate to where the priest stood. Hannah saw the dawning recognition on the older man’s face.
“My lord,” she said. “For this child I have prayed, and the Lord has granted me my petition that I made to him.”
She paused and took a deep breath. The priest waited for her silently
“So I will lend him to the Lord.” She stopped again. This was the moment, there was no going back. But, then, she thought, hadn’t the moment passed a long time ago? She spoke quickly, “As long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.”
It was done.
The priest inclined his head gravely and extended his hand to the boy. Samuel’s little round face looked both innocent and impossibly wise. He gave a fleeting glance to his mother and took the priest’s hand. They walked into the crowd milling around the tabernacle.
Hannah’s knees gave way. Once again she was in the dust. Her boy gone, she waited for the emptiness to return.
But it didn’t. As she knelt there, she felt the rush of energy once again, giving her a strength that was not her own. It straightened her legs into standing, pushed her posture proudly upright, and flowed through her arms, raising them to the sky.
The words were a physical presence gathering in her mouth. She couldn’t keep them in, even if she had wanted to. She parted her lips and let them spill out, her own and not her own.
“My heart exults in the Lord!”
The words were a shout, and they echoed around the yard. As people stopped and stared, the words kept coming of their own accord.
“…I rejoice in your salvation.”
The words were strength, and the strength was joy.
“He raises up the poor from the dust. He lifts the needy from the ash heap.”
The chorus of praise continued to rush out of her mouth. As it did, Hannah saw an image of her Samuel, his wise face older, anointing a head of dark curls.
“…he will give strength to his king…” A king! Israel had no king. She saw a shepherd’s staff in an outstretched hand, then casting its shadow over a manger. “…and exalt the power of his anointed!”
Her strange song ended jubilantly. From across the yard, the priest and her boy solemnly watched her and the crowd that had gathered around her. The priest still held Samuel’s hand, but raised his other hand in a farewell or a blessing. They turned and continued walking away.
Hannah placed one hand over her heart, pressing as if trying to keep it in her chest. She felt so many things — grief and joy, worry and hope, loss and triumph. But more than anything, love. Love was the power she had felt, love like no other.
She left the crowd at the tabernacle behind, ignoring their buzzing questions. She would return to Elkanah, and the hand that had grasped little Samuel’s so tightly would be empty.
But she was full.